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BLOG - Three Parent Embryos and the Law

Following a House of Commons vote to allow the creation of three parent embryos, solicitor Cameron Shaw explores what this development could mean with respect to parental rights and responsibilities.

"On Monday 2nd of February, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to change the existing law on IVF, to allow an IVF technique called mitochondrial DNA transfer in order to prevent genetic diseases being passed from mother to child. Mitochondrial DNA transfer does exactly what it says on the tin! But for those of us who are not scientists, what it means in practice is the creation of three parent embryos.

"The science behind Mitochondrial Donation is deceptively simple.  Healthy DNA from a female donor is used to replace faulty DNA in the embryo of a mother at genetic risk. This process will help to prevent the child from contracting serious and life-limiting genetic diseases that pass from a mother to child, such as muscular dystrophy.  This means that the embryo will have genetic material from the biological parents and a third unrelated party. In effect the embryo will have three genetic parents.

"Proponents cite research that indicates almost 2,500 women of reproductive age will be helped by the treatment, whereas those who oppose it claim that the treatment will pave the way for genetically modified ‘designer babies’.

"But beyond the ethical debate, how will three parent embryos affect the law?  It is clear that the law currently governing IVF treatment, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, will have to be amended to permit parents to use Mitochondrial Donation and involve a third party in their IVF. This is likely to take place in the Autumn of 2015. If the amendment is passed, the first three parent children could be born as early as 2016.

"However will all the donors of three parent embryos have rights in respect of the child? This is the $64,000 question. Currently in Scotland any child’s birth mother automatically has Parental Rights and Responsibilities (PRR) for that child."

Will the father of the child have rights in respect of the child?

"The father will have PRR if he is named on the birth certificate.  If the father is not named on the birth certificate he can enter into a Parental Rights and Responsibilities Agreement with the mother which will convey these rights to him. If the mother does not enter into an agreement and the father is not named on the birth certificate, the father would have to apply to court for PRR."

Will the third parent have rights?

"The simple answer is that we don’t yet know. However in a three parent embryo, the amount of DNA from the third parent will only amount to around 0.0054% of the total DNA of the child. Therefore it is unlikely the law would give a donor of genetic material parental rights. Neither is it likely that there will be a system to apply or acquire these rights, such as that for natural fathers as described above.

"Should a third parent want PRR the most likely scenario is that they would have to apply to a court under Section 11 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. Currently under this act any person can apply to have PRR in respect of any child. That could potentially cause upset and heartache for the original parents.

"If the original motivation of the donor is to help parents with a history of genetic disorder to have a healthy child, then this may be an unlikely situation. However, it is still a real possibility, so as with any new legislation we must wait to see what outcomes arise from this change in the law."


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